It is inarguably a great thrill to bear witness to the major-league debut of a top pitching prospect. It felt, for example, like the nation set aside whatever else it was doing to watch Stephen Strasburg blaze his way through the Pittsburgh Pirates on ESPN. You hear about the makeup and you hear about the stuff, and when it comes time for the debut, you’re looking for the pitcher to confirm the expectations you’ve had for him for months, if not years. You want evidence the guy’s as good as you already believe. Pitching prospects are aces long before they’re actual aces.
It’s a very different story with a player like Jose Abreu. He’s a prospect, yes, and there’s excitement there, sure, but Abreu is more of an unknown, no matter how much the White Sox committed to him. With a lot of inexperienced players, you’re looking for expectations to be confirmed. With Abreu, you’re looking for expectations to be set. This is the discovery period — we’re all learning the things we’re supposed to know about Jose Abreu down the road. What is there to be said about Jose Abreu after just his first week?
It would be lazy and accurate to just sum it all up as a mixed bag. Abreu started hot against the Twins, then he had one hit against the Royals over the weekend. There were times he looked terrific, and there were times he looked defeated, and all this indicates is that Abreu is neither literally perfect nor genuinely disastrous. We can do better than that, though, and maybe the most important point we’ve learned is that Abreu appears to have above-average plate coverage.
A pitch down and in he lined to left field:
This pitch, up, was blasted into the gap in right-center:
On this 0-and-2 breaking ball down and away, Abreu stayed back enough and ripped the ball over the center fielder’s head:
And here’s Abreu ripping a double to the opposite field on a pitch away off the plate:
Abreu’s already shown power away, and he’s demonstrated an ability to go down and yank something inside. He doesn’t seem like he’s pull-happy, so he doesn’t seem like he can be exposed by stuff over and beyond the outer third. One question: how well can Abreu handle fastballs in that aren’t around the knee? From Baseball America, a while ago:
Some scouts are concerned about his bat speed and the way he cuts himself off with his swing, particularly coming off a World Baseball Classic in which he looked vulnerable against decent fastballs on the inner third.
Abreu hasn’t faced enough inside fastballs yet, and he certainly hasn’t yet faced enough good inside fastballs, but it’s interesting to note that Abreu leads baseball with three hit-by-pitches, all on heaters. There’s information to be gleaned from how Abreu has been pitched.
If you sort the leaderboards by zone rate, Abreu’s near the bottom, which means he’s seen one of baseball’s lowest rates of would-be strikes. And, if you sort the leaderboards by fastball rate, Abreu’s again near the bottom, which means he’s seen one of baseball’s lowest rates of heaters. Incidentally, we didn’t see anything this dramatic off the bat with Yasiel Puig or Yoenis Cespedes. You have to be very careful interpreting numbers from samples like this, but I think there’s a twin explanation: pitchers are testing Abreu’s aggressiveness, and additionally, he’s being pitched around. Pitched around, at the start of his career.
His protection is in the person of Adam Dunn, who isn’t a bad hitter, but who isn’t the hitter he was. In Abreu’s 10th career big-league plate appearance, he was intentionally walked. In Abreu’s 11th career big-league plate appearance, he was again intentionally walked. Here’s Ron Gardenhire, after facing Abreu and the White Sox:
“The kid can really hit. We knew that coming in. We heard he was a really strong young man, and that’s why we were pitching around him. No disrespect to Mr. Dunn. The way the guy’s getting the barrel to the ball, you just try to limit the damage when he comes up in a lot of situations because he seems like he’s on. He hits pretty much everything. Even when he makes an out, he seems like he gets the barrel to it. He’s a strong young man. Looks like he really knows what he’s doing hitting.”
There’s an element of not wanting to be defeated by Abreu if it isn’t necessary. There’s also an element of, why throw strikes, if he’s willing to chase some balls? Here’s a simple pitch map:
Like a lot of righties, Abreu has fished down and away. He’s also gone after pitches beyond either side of the zone. It was examined above what Abreu’s been able to do on some pitches outside. So far, inside, Abreu’s swung at ten pitches off the plate. Two of them, he’s lined for singles. Two more, he fouled, and three, he missed. He’s also grounded out once and flown out twice. Abreu’s already flashed power in one area, but he hasn’t yet flashed power in another, so if teams are paying attention, Abreu could get a steady diet of pitches in until he proves that he can handle them consistently.
It’s apparent that Jose Abreu has power, even though he has yet to go deep. It’s apparent that he’s fairly aggressive, and it’s apparently that he can hit pitches away pretty hard up the middle or to the opposite field. One of the worries was that he’ll chase pitches too often down and away, but most hitters have problems with those pitches, and with Abreu, pitchers might have to be precise, because if they try to hit that spot and miss by just a little bit, Abreu could clobber the ball somewhere. It might be that the key to getting Abreu out could be targeting inside. But he has already yanked a couple line drives, through a week of one season, so it’ll be far from automatic. This is the discovery phase for everybody.
It took no time at all for Jose Abreu to earn his opponent’s respect. The question now is to what extent he’ll keep it. It could be teams will challenge him on the inner third. It could be he’ll struggle against those pitches. Or it could be he’ll hit those pitches, and reveal himself to be one of the more complete hitters in the division. The White Sox front office has its suspicions.
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